Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical confirms him as a man of humour, warmth, humility and compassion, eager to share the love that God “lavishes” on humanity and display it as the answer to the world’s deepest needs… He has produced a profound, lucid, poignant and at times witty discussion of the relationship between sexual love and the love of God, the fruit no doubt of a lifetime’s meditation. This is a document that presents the most attractive face of the Catholic faith and could be put without hesitation into the hands of any inquirer.
This from the Tablet, in 2006. Let us be clear: Pope Francis isn’t the first and wont be the last Catholic teacher to put love, mercy and joy at the centre of the proclamation of Christian faith. He isn’t, either, the first Pope to get plaudits from the press for doing it. Hans Kung gave early-Benedict rave reviews. Even the British newspapers, The Times and The Guardian were similarly effusive.
That is because, for a moment, the world was able to glimpse the true Josef Ratzinger, who was also Pope Benedict XVI. Normally, the world is so caught up in its own caricatures, in bed with its straw-men, that it doesn’t give space to what is real. This is all over the place, not just with the Church. In the case of the Church, however, it uses the caricature to poison perceptions of Christianity; the world hates the Church – for it first hated her Divine founder. But just for a while, a chink opened and people actually did read and take in what Benedict had been saying, as Pope, as Cardinal. Why that chink closed again is anybody’s guess. But as for me, I do believe that the forces of evil, whether you say “Satan” hardly seems to be the point, are at work in the world.
I don’t say that a similar thing is happening now, because Pope Francis is himself being set-up as a caricature by the press and the world. He is jolly and avuncular and cuddly – except to those nasty people in the Vatican, or those horrible old-fashioned traditionalists, of course. He is going to make the Church nice, a bit more acceptable, a bit more Anglican. Isn’t it all just too lovely.
The difference is, that Francis has participated in creating this phantasm. Whereas, upon discovering the “real” Benedict XVI people were surprised, even, delighted, to find him kind, gentle, humble, humorous, compassionate, profound, and intelligent, what will people find when they discover the real Francis? We already know how good he is – he has already shown (including an additional camera to follow the intimate kissings and huggings more closely) and told us (as he said to Scalfari: “I have the humility…”). His humbility, his jokes, his mercifulness, have all been on-show from day zero. Is this the real Pope Francis? When we scratch the surface what do we find? Is there not an undercurrent of authoritarianism? A lack of gentlemanliness (for example the matter of bouquet of rosaries or the failure to attend a musical concert for the Year of Faith), and a misdirected strong-mindedness (for example the way of dealing with the Franciscans of the Immaculate)? A man who views conscience as nothing more than each one’s idea of what is good or evil, yet who is determinedly willed to stamp his own views on the entire Church? Perhaps this is a cultural issue, but beneath the baby-kissing and disabled-hugging, does he seem somewhat hubristic, overly self-assured? This is all coated in a varnish of humility: second hand cars (to replace existing ones), carrying his own briefcase (rejecting the service of another), wearing shoes made in Argentina (if he can’t find a decent shoe-shop in Rome he just isn’t looking), kissing the feet of women and Muslims (despite being a “son of the Church” which imagines the Holy Thursday rite quite differently in both its outward expression and its deep inner meaning).
If that is what we find, it stands in severe contrast to his predecessor, who sought to reimagine the papacy in continuity with the Church’s tradition, and as something apart from the one who occupies it. Those who value the Church’s tradition and teaching will not take to him because they value the papacy precisely as an office which though exercised personally (as de Lubac and others expressed in the light of the Council so well) is not entirely synonymous with the person of the Pope himself. The scramble to canonise Pope John XXIII, as good and unliberal as he was, also makes my point: he is tokenistic to supporters of the “opening” which has caused so much horror in the Church, but the waiving of certain conditions normal to canonisation has not been, in his case, at the will of the whole People of God (as Francis would like to say), as was the case with St Pius X or Blessed John Paul II, but is based in the decided will of a Pope who happens to share his views on openness to modernity (if very little else).
Francis’s discourses are untidy, illogical and vague, his off-the-cuff remarks often make no sense whatever; but this is only part of the problem. It seems to me there is a certain sophistry involved too: “Dear Mr Scalfari: I am not trying the convert you! But whether you like it or not, you have a soul, and your spark of divine light will end up God’s when his light is all in everyone!” Apart from being Gnostic nonsense, this totally disregards his interlocutor’s avowed atheism. As Benedict XVI was always pointing out, dialogue is predicated on mutual respect and understanding. You must be honest: for a Catholic Pope to say he has no interest in converting an atheist (and if not, why not?) but then to go on to tell him that whether he likes it or not he has a divine spark and it will be reunited with God, demonstrates a certain intellectual dishonesty and disrespect for the other. It will certainly not result in their conversion or return to faith. The point-blank honesty of Ratzinger in his interviews with Peter Seewald is the perfect evidence that an approach which engages in a Platonic-Socratic way, rather than a sophistical one, is the kind which bears fruit. Take also the dialogue with Islam: Pope Benedict achieved a more honest and fruitful dialogue there than could be possible when one simply acquiesces to the blatantly false premise that in essence there is not much to draw between Catholic Christian and Islamic concepts of God. But we have reverted, with Pope Francis, to the latter position.
I do not say any of this in particular affects his ability to be Pope, of course; though it may be that his ability to function as pope is limited by it . But he is, whether he likes it or not, responsible for the peace of the Catholic world. And this requires as well a humble submission by him to the office, and to the Tradition of the Church, in particular if the human qualities are not up to the task.
The real problem with Pope Francis seems to me to be he does not see the world or the Church as it is. He thinks the Lord will do all the legwork, if we only tell people how we love them and how God loves them. Of course, there are three ways in which this is insufficient: primarily, it is seen as license, for example several ‘progressive’ groups took him up, posting ‘thank yous’ on Facebook etc. Meanwhile, it does not generate genuine sympathy for the Church or the Christian faith: the comments of individuals under these ‘thank you’ images, revealed very clearly that, in fact, the hatred for Catholicism remained in the vast majority of commenters. And thridly, God gave us the intellect and more importantly the reason, and he expects us to use them: we should do so “in and out of season”, always “ready to give an account” of our faith.
Discernment means first of all seeing things as they are and not how one might wish they are. And the reality is that for a huge number of people Catholicism is not only anachronistic, it is evil. It suppresses ‘love’, sexual rights, and so forth. It is cited as a cause of depression, crime, violence and civic strife. It holds back the human race from development, and it tries to stop science bettering the human lot. Its history is full of oppression, murder, hypocrisy and greed. It tortured and murdered thousands of innocent people. It enslaved the native peoples of dozens of countries in imperialistic conquest. Even its founding principles, its founder himself, are called into question. And above all, “I never asked anyone to die for me.” Discernment means realising that tip-toeing towards people with such deeply-set and convinced antipathy or hatred is not going to bring them onside. Even a whole-sale sell-out of the catholic faith to their convictions does not achieve that, it merely confirms what they knew all along: our faith is nothing, it can be exchanged for cheap brass anytime, so how can it have ever been valuable? And more, how can these idiots have believed in something worth so much nothing? But even that is not the end, because once you have put into a waste-skip and burned everything you once had to offer, those who do still come to your store, find that the shelves are empty and there is no food. This devaluing is the grave danger of modernity: the dilution which ends in dissolution. For if the faith is not the greatest treasure we can obtain, if it is not the “pearl of great price” men and women can hardly be expected to sell everything (which is required) to purchase it.
The trouble in our time is that the Church is internally weakened, has lost the courage of her convictions, she wants to be loved by the world. Discernment means accepting that those days, if they ever really existed, are gone. Pope Benedict seemed to recognise that because of this, the need of the Church, and so ultimately the need of the world, is a strengthening of faith, a reinvigoration of Catholic ‘identity’, a new evangelisation not only directed outwards, but inwards as well. A call to remember who you are as a Catholic Christian, remember the great gifts of faith, remember that if there has been evil in the history of the Christian world, there has been and still is so much more good – a great trail of light running throughout history and spreading out even in the modern world. Have confidence in what you have experienced! And of course, it is this which is the ‘leaven’, which we can take out with us “to the peripheries”. If I do not have this, what am I bringing? Myself? Well I am nothing – just a sinner like anyone. But if I have this faith, this Jesus, to offer, then he has everything that is needed.
If there is are good things about Francis, it is when he talks about the power of evil, about the Lord who has overcome it, about trusting Jesus, entrusting ourselves to our Lady, about spending time before the Lord present in the Eucharist. Because Jesus is found in the upper room, as well as on the road. But all that is good in his speeches and homilies is being overwhelmed by what is negative. Some of what he says even seems to verge on the heretical. Pray, and fast – and, of course, the Lord has promised that the gates of hell shall not prevail, so a few old cardinals and popes definitely can’t mess things up entirely. Can they?